Academic journal article Kritika

The Russian Revolution from a Provincial Perspective

Academic journal article Kritika

The Russian Revolution from a Provincial Perspective

Article excerpt

Red Petrograd as the cradle and center of the Russian Revolution dominated the historical narratives of 1917 for many years. But since the fall of communism in the Soviet Union, the historiography of revolutionary Russia has developed a distinctly provincial aspect. The opening of Soviet central and provincial archives provided new research opportunities for historians. Numerous articles and volumes focusing on Russia's provinces have since appeared on both sides of the former Soviet border, and the historiography of the Russian Revolution matured with an accelerated pace to account for multiple local variables. The understanding of the multiplicity of local experiences profoundly changed and challenged the historical interpretations of the crisis that played out in Russia from 1917 through 1921.

About two and a half decades ago, interpretive frameworks of the revolution seemed to be well established, and historiographic divisions were clear-cut. Soviet historians--from Moscow and Leningrad and out in the provinces--studied the replications of central patterns of dual power, the rise of the soviets, and the increase in popular support for the Bolsheviks. (1) Western scholars were generally more divided in their interpretation of 1917. Those who supported the theory that the Bolsheviks had come to power as the result of a coup in October 1917 were challenged by social historians who revealed genuine popular support for the Bolshevik slogans of putting an end to the world war, introducing a land reform, and implementing popular governance. (2) Even historians belonging to different camps and historiographical traditions, however, focused primarily on the events in the center that radiated to the periphery with waves of popular revolts or with Red Army units that were resolved to establish Soviet power. Russia's provincial societies as independent agencies in the revolution were largely absent in these accounts. (3)

Later regional studies have undermined these interpretations by revealing a diversity of revolutionary experiences. Regional studies were pioneered in the West by Donald Raleigh's 1986 book on the revolution in Saratov, soon followed by Orlando Figes's insightful and detailed study of the revolution on the Volga. (4) On the Russian side, the traditional Soviet genre of the "October Revolution in a certain province" story was pushed aside by more critical and detailed works grounded in local documentary collections, such as Sergei Iarovs discussion of peasants of Russia's northwestern provinces or Nadezhda Kabytova's research on local power structures in the Volga region. (5) Over the past 20 years, a growing number of historians of provincial revolutions discovered numerous local factors that defined developments on the ground, including particular economic conditions, various social and political groupings, and national and confessional particularities. Each province and even each district (uezd) turned out to have its own unique combination of these factors and in a sense its own local revolution. The perplexing diversity of regional experiences revived the image of the revolution as chaos, as another "time of troubles" (smuta) where the unconscious triumphed over the conscious and where scholars could only document the uncounted number of local variables, particular developments, and the depth of human tragedies and suffering the crisis entailed. (6)

In this article, I review the variety of local revolutionary experiences as they are revealed in recent historiography but also focus on some larger themes and issues where this regional perspective provides new insights and affects the general understanding of the Russian Revolution. The historiography of the Russian Revolution traditionally focused on the year 1917. Currently, however, historians often discuss a longer "continuum of crisis" that originated in World War I and lasted through the Civil War years until the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921. …

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